What Others Think About Wildfires: Society of Environmental Journalists Panel 2019

I’ve been interested in how stories get covered by various journalists and press entities.   In 2019, I attended a session for journalists learning about wildfires at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Fort Collins. There were many fascinating differences between their culture and that of, say, SAF, including high quality free food, drink, and swag from ENGOs.

I think it’s worth listening to the recording, of the session to get an idea of how others think and talk about what’s important about wildfires.  Some seem absolutely sure of things that we all know are contested among both scientists and practitioners. But maybe it’s just a cultural way of making statements and sounding sure.

It’s especially interesting to listen to these 2019 ideas with our current knowledge of how Congress, California, and Colorado are currently putting megabucks into fuel treatments.

At the beginning, the moderator, Michael Kodas, introduces the speakers and says that George Wuerthner’s book is an “excellent resource for covering wildfire issues.”


Here’s a quote from a recent op-ed of Wuerthner’s from July 2021:

Today, with regards to wildfire, we should be saying over and over, it’s the climate stupid! The heat, drought and other variables caused by human climate warming is super-charging wildfires. Yet the response of most agencies and politicians is to suggest more logging/thinning as a panacea.

The proponents of active forest management assert that these tactics can reduce fire intensity and thus is a beneficial policy to reduce large blazes. However, fuel reductions do not change the climate or weather. And most of the scientific support for thinning/logging is based on modeling of fuel loading, not real-life experiences.

By promoting “active forest management” as a panacea for wildfire, we trade inevitable negative consequences of logging/thinning that occur today and get only a tiny chance that any fuel reduction will influence a wildfire.

There are so many interesting things about these statements.

“most of the scientific support for thinning/logging is based on modeling of fuel loading, not real-life experience”

This is probably one of the reasons the group of scientists wrote the 10 Common Questions paper.

“get only a tiny chance that any fuel reduction will influence a wildfire.”

But we’ve seem FTEM numbers that don’t agree with that (plus our own experiences).

Do any of us think that if we stopped producing GHGs today our fire problems would go away?

Marc Heller of E&E News also quoted  Wuerther last month in the article mentioned here:

A debate over the practice continues to play out.

One of the skeptics is George Wuerthner, a Bend, Ore., ecologist and director of Public Lands Media, part of the environmental group Earth Island Institute. Wuerthner told E&E News he’s not convinced of the main argument behind prescribed burning — that decades of total fire suppression have led to overstocked forests that need to be cleared in part with fire.

Wuerthner said that in his view, increased wildfires aren’t being driven so much by too much fuel as by climate change.

“Fuels are not what is driving large blazes,” Wuerthner said in an email. “Climate/weather that includes low humidity, drought, high temps, and most importantly wind. And prescribed burning does nothing to change those major influences.”

And prescribed burning and other fuels-reduction work doesn’t necessarily diminish wildfires when they do come, Wuerthner said, although the Forest Service pointed to several examples from 2021 suggesting the opposite.

Wuerthner pointed to the Camp Fire that destroyed thousands of homes in Paradise, Calif., in 2018. In that case, he said, the fire burned through areas that had been treated through logging and prescribed burns, thanks to high winds.

So Wuerthner is actually against prescribed burning, as well as the less popular thinning.  Which I think makes him an outlier, although an apparently popular one.  When are outliers worth reporting on and when are they purveyors of “misinformation”? (Rhetorical question)


A couple of other observations:

Rod Moraga was the only fire suppression person presenting.. it makes me wonder why more current IC folks aren’t out and about telling their stories. are they not available, or don’t moderators ask? Or don’t they know whom to ask? Is there a communications plan for the Interagency Fire folks? Or each agency’s fire folks? It seems like that would be increasingly important as social license is developed  for prescribed and MFRB fires.

One of the speakers, Chela Garcia of the Hispanic Access Fund, at about 18:46 talks about an experiment the Forest Service is doing working with the acequia system to pay a mayordomo and leñeros to thin 275 acres. They have a year’s time to finish the blocks and are paid $300 on completion according to this interesting article on the Kiowa-San Cristobal WUI (Carson NF).

There’s a lot there, so please share your observations. It looks like you can listen to any of the other presentations as well (climate, Indian Country, solutions journalism and so on.

16 thoughts on “What Others Think About Wildfires: Society of Environmental Journalists Panel 2019”

  1. Some people believe humanity is simply powerless to fix what it has broken. What would become the Black Hills National Forest hasn’t been a natural forest since 1863 when a nearly Hills-wide fire probably set by a band of Lakota opened grazing for distinct historic ungulates. Brown and Sieg have noted at least 77 instances of human-induced wildfire on the pre-settlement Hills.

    Global warming has been accelerating since humans began setting fires to clear habitat, as a weapon or just for amusement. Evidence that we humans have eaten or burned ourselves out of habitats creating catastrophes behind us is strewn throughout the North American continent. European settlement and the Industrial Revolution in the New World took hardwoods for charcoal then humans allowed fast-growing conifers to replace lost forests. Desertification driven by agricultural practices, overgrazing, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and urban sprawl have turned much of the United States into scorched earth.

    Ponderosa pine sucks billions of gallons from aquifer recharges, needles absorb heat and accelerate snow melt while aspen leaves reflect sunlight in the summer months and hold snowpacks in winter. Insects like the mountain pine beetle and spruce bud worm can help promote drought- and fire-tolerant species like aspen.

    So, Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem is correct when she said the BHNF has been poorly managed. I maintain that has been happening since 1899 and Forest Service Case Number One.

    • Larry, if the Lakota were setting fires, was that “natural?” I don’t think so.
      Also, you can’t blame ponderosa for occurring where it does. In many places, aspen won’t grow.

      When I worked in central Oregon 40 years ago, wildlife folks were funding removing pine from aspen areas and timber folks were funding removing aspen from pine areas. I think things are on an upward trajectory of coherence since then.

      • Hi Sharon: I have always argued that people are part of nature, therefore, gathering firewood and setting fires are part of the “natural environment” for that time and place. Semantics, but with strong political ties.

      • The National Forest System is a 193 million acre gift to logging, mining and grazing wrenched from people who, indeed, evolved with woodlands most Americans have never seen except as lumber at Home Depot.

        • And the National Park System, Wildlife Refuges, military installations, and BLM were also wrenched from the same people for various purposes. Indeed other lands were wrenched for private landowner reasons such as farming, mining and so on. Don’t quite see what you’re getting at.

    • Hi Larry: My ex-wife and mother of my two children was from the Black Hills. We stayed the summer there once, about 50 years ago, arriving about a week before the Rapid City Flood. Fortunately, her folks’ property was on high ground on the outskirts of town. I’ve never seen rain like that in Oregon, or even close. What caught my interest was your reference to “Case Number One.” I made a point of visiting the location and have had a fallen 5′ 1888 survey corner (wooden post with painted blaze) from the sale as a souvenir ever since. A neighbor was a retired forest scientist who told me that the Black Hills forest would burn again someday — he just didn’t know when. For the reasons you are describing. Poor management.

      • Bob. But since the Black Hills has been doing all kinds of management, including the bark beetle project and other fuel reduction efforts. So perhaps all of it will ultimately burn again, but perhaps in pieces and not catastrophically. I’m sure you would agree, as a fellow old-timer, that projections into the future are only infrequently correct.

        • Hi Sharon: That is good news. This prediction was being made — I think the person had actually done research in the Black Hills during his career — in 1972, in context of a major flood that had just taken place. Quite the introduction to Rapid City! And yes, predictions do come true sometimes — often unfortunately.

        • Check out the two most recent posts on this Facebook page concerning the recent Wabash Springs fire west of Custer, in the Black Hills.
          This area had been heavily thinned several years ago and the fire occurred under 40 mph+ winds. Because of the thinning and also probably because of the strong winds which kept the flames nearly horizontal, the tree crowns were not involved. It was primarily a wind driven grass fire. The fire behavior was not extreme (with the exception of high rates of spread), even with the strong winds.
          An observation was that the heavy thinning (resulting in additional sunlight on the forest floor) did create a vigorous grass component that had resulted in a dense thatch of grass. This is what carried the fire. Possibly, a lighter thinning might have resulted in a lesser grass response, who knows?
          Nonetheless, this area survived the fire quite well, even with the really strong winds. No structures were lost, even though there are numerous adjacent residences. If the overstory had not been thinned and the understory also cleared, might there have been a different outcome? I guess I think so. Did climate change create that wind? I don’t know about that, really windy days happen in South Dakota every once in a while, and always have to my knowledge. We have had a fairly dry winter and actually have not had that for a number of years. Most of our winters have been pretty moist for the last 10 years (with one or two exceptions).

  2. The other day I heard a group of “forest expects” on our local radio station talking about wildfires. Dellasala was talking about about how the labor day fires in Oregon roared though private timberlands promoting the idea that forest management does nothing to temper wildfires.
    Of course those fires were unique with the incredible east winds that occurred during the fires.
    He did not mention that first the fires burned through ten of thousands of acres of federal forest lands first. That the fires were finally stopped when they reached the private timberlands. He did not mention due to the efforts of the private timberlands owners the fires were stopped and further destruction was avoided. I believe you can’t find solutions or have credibility with half truths.

    • The Labor Day fires stopped when the gale-force wind stopped blowing, to my relief as a Holiday Farm Fire downwinder. Had nothing to do with fire suppression actions (none was taken) nor past timberland management. However, it does look like hazelnut orchards are notably fire-resistant. Who knew?

      • Hi Andy: Exactly right about the wind — orchards, lawns, and irrigated fields seemed to be largely unaffected by the fires. The Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires to your north had been active for weeks, though, and effective fire suppression may well have mitigated the extent and severity of that disaster.

        • Residents of Gates, Oregon, aim their ire at Pacific Power nearly a year after their town burned

          SOURCE: https://www.opb.org/article/2021/07/12/residents-of-gates-oregon-aim-their-ire-at-pacific-power-nearly-a-year-after-their-town-burned/

          Some Snips:

          “911, what is your emergency?”

          “We need help in Gates!” a caller screams in a 911 recording. “There’s a fire coming up in the neighborhood. It’s huge!”

          On the night of Sept. 7, 2020, calls like this were streaming into 911 dispatchers and overwhelming local firefighting capabilities when Johne Martin woke up, stepped outside his house and saw absolute chaos surrounding him.

          “The wind started whipping … the limbs started flying around, and I’m hearing trees break down,” he said. “And I looked down the street toward the Petersons’ place, and the wind blew a line down, and it caught things on fire below. It burned the Petersons’ place, too.”

          He could see another fire burning in the distance that had already destroyed two homes, and there were lots of downed power lines.

          “There was more than just the power line I’d seen blown down,” he said. “There was more up and down the roads.”

          Martin quickly realized he had to leave — and fast. He hurried to grab what he could from his house. It wasn’t much. Some family photos, medications and a safe. The rest of his belongings burned. The Petersons had left their home earlier, “so, they didn’t even know that their house was gone,” Martin said.

          People called in to 911 that night to report fires on electrical poles near their homes, fires in fields and fires on the side of the highway where they were trying to evacuate but were stopped by downed trees and power lines. They also reported various electrical explosions, flashes and arcing around power lines….

          But another theory has emerged to explain how Gates and neighboring towns caught fire that night, and it’s shared by more than 100 people like Martin who have joined class action lawsuits against the electric utility Pacific Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp.

          The lawsuits argue the fires that overran their homes, schools, businesses and lives were ignited by the company’s electrified power lines, well before the Beachie Creek Fire reached town. [Emphasis added]

          • Hi Matthew: The Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires were ignited by lightning several weeks before Labor Day. You can sue the power company or the railroad, but you can’t sue the USFS. It’s entirely possible that the Gates area was affected by a separate ignition, but’s also true that firebrands were being carried a mile or more in advance of the principal fires.

  3. Last summer there were very little wind but Willamette and Umpqua National forests managed to keep their “wildfires” going till the rains put them out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cost was near a hundred million dollars, that’s just a guess. Of course that doesn’t include the lost of resources.
    The labor days fires did subside when the winds died down and were fought when then entered private timberlands.
    I too had the experience of talking to a man who’s house was spared in the labor days fires in the Blue River area near the Mackenzie River. The winds came and the electricity when out because of down powerlines. In few hours there was fire everywhere. People had to wait the night out gathered on the Blue River football field. There was no escape. But down powerlines weren’t the cause of the fire, or private timberlands the only lands that burned.
    And Bob is right you can’t sue the Forest Service for fires, though they can sue you. I guess the only time you can sue the Forest Service is when they are planning to do something.


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